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Azerbaijani-Israeli relations gained a boost last month with the formation of AZIS, an organization of olim from the former Soviet republic state. AZIS, short for Azerbaijan-Israel but also an Azeri word meaning "dear" or "precious," unites several groups into a single national one.
"Already, just a few days after the ceremony [marking the formation of AZIS on April 12], Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz has invited Azerbaijan's transportation minister to Israel through us," said AZIS chairman MK Yosef Shagal (Israel Beiteinu) on Tuesday. In addition, he said, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Acting President Dalia Itzik have already made connections with Azerbaijan via Shagal, bypassing regular channels.
AZIS will has two central focuses, to unite Azeri olim under one umbrella and to provide a new avenue for contacts between the two countries.
The first function may seem obvious, but what makes the second necessary? According to Shagal, in sentiments echoed by Foreign Ministry and AZIS officials, it's Azerbaijan's "objective and obvious and understood" limitations on formal diplomatic representation in Israel. Although Israel has had an active embassy in Baku since the early 1990s, Azerbaijan has yet to open one in Israel.
Locked in a protracted - if currently inactive - conflict with Armenia that has already lost the country 14 percent of its territory, Azerbaijan is worried about losing the Muslim world's support in the 16-year-old conflict by publicly embracing the Jewish state. It also faces pressure from neighboring Iran, through Caspian Sea claims and other means, to completely sever relations with Israel. Indeed, the Azeri government is reportedly frightened by Iranian religious influence among its population - some 20% of Iran's population is Azeri - and sees Iran as its primary geopolitical threat.
Thus, for Azeri diplomacy, AZIS represents a local lobby group, a way of quietly strengthening relations without harming the country's other interests.
"The connection between the two countries is strategic and nuanced, and very important to both countries," and Israeli officials don't always understand this, Shagal told the Post. "They don't even know the difference between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan," he said in dismay. His job, he believes, is to clarify the importance of that relationship.
The strategic significance for Israel of this relationship is perhaps hard to exaggerate. Besides being a majority Muslim state - over two-thirds of Azeris are Shi'ites - Azerbaijan is located in the "energy corridor" leading from Central Asia and the Caspian to the West. It is the starting point of the newly opened Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the world second-longest, which brings Caspian oil to the Turkish Mediterranean city of Ceyhan, and it is an air corridor for the West into Afghanistan and - in theory, at least - Iran.
Israeli-Azeri trade amounts to some $700 million annually, consisting almost entirely of oil imports to Israel. With the opening of the new pipeline, one Foreign Ministry official told the Post in Jerusalem on Tuesday, "it's likely that this amount will grow significantly."
And Israel's importance to Azerbaijan is perhaps greater. Israel is Azerbaijan's second-largest petroleum customer (after Italy), and has been an important supplier of security expertise and technology to the Caucasian country for over a decade.
Most crucially, however, Israel's geographic position offers Azerbaijan the key to reaching Eastern oil markets. Israel's Ashkelon-Eilat pipeline may give Azerbaijan the southern oil port it needs to compete with Iranian exports. With discussions well underway on an underwater pipeline linking Ceyhan and Ashkelon, a resulting 2,500-kilometer-long Baku-Eilat pipeline would bring Azeri oil to the immense and growing South Asian and Chinese markets.
Jewish Agency figures show 34,971 olim from Azerbaijan since 1989, and community members estimate a total figure (including children) of some 80,000.
"There's no Russian media outlet in Israel without immigrants from Baku," said AZIS board member and Israel Radio Russian-language editor and presenter Victoria Dolinsky.
The umbrella group will unite two very different groups among Azeri Jewry, Ashkenazim who came to the Caucasus during the Soviet period to work in the oil industry, and the so-called Mountain Jews, a long-standing local Jewish community with a unique language and culture.
Dolinsky told the Post that uniting under one roof is typical of Azeris, who are generally tolerant of different cultures.
"Baku is a state of mind," she said. Historically, people immigrated to Baku "from many different places, and many nations live there. It gave the city a special character, and people got used to the atmosphere. They didn't care about nationality or religion. [Azeris] are Muslim, but relaxed.
Even the Jews are relaxed, since they didn't suffer from any kind of anti-Semitism. It's like in Tel Aviv."
Dolinsky adds with a laugh, "The Azeris have a blessing that wishes for an Azeri man to marry a Jewish woman. They think it's a disaster if an Azeri man marries a Russian woman, but to marry a Jewish woman is a blessing."
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